• Tastes Of History

A Brief History of Foods: Oranges

Origins The name 'orange' derives from the Sanskrit word for 'orange tree' (नारङ्ग nāraṅga). The Sanskrit word reached European languages through Persian نارنگ (nārang) and its Arabic derivative نارنج (nāranj). 'Orange' entered Late Middle English in the 14th century via the Old French word orenge (as in the phrase pomme d'orenge), which is itself based on the Arabic nāranj. The colour was named after the fruit [1] and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of orange as a colour name in English was in 1512.

There are two types of orange: the bitter orange most notably used to make marmalade (or in other recipes needing a sharper flavour), and the sweet orange. While the orange is unknown in the wild state, it is assumed that the bitter orange originated in southern China, north-eastern India, and perhaps south-eastern Asia (formerly Indochina) possibly from a cross between pure mandarin [2] and pomelo parents. In contrast, the sweet orange is not a wild fruit [3], but a domesticated cross between a non-pure mandarin orange and a hybrid pomelo. All varieties of the sweet orange descend from this original cross and have a distinct origin from the bitter orange.

Arrival in Europe In AD 711 the Islamic Arabs and Moors of Berber descent crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa into the Iberian Peninsula. In a series of raids they conquered Visigothic Christian lands, and after an eight-year campaign brought most of Iberia under Islamic rule. The arrival of the Moors invigorated in Europe a renewed interest in scientific knowledge and learning, advanced new ideas in mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus), introduced a novel writing system, paper to actually write on, and the bitter orange.

Complex irrigation techniques specifically adapted to support orange orchards is evidence of large-scale cultivation from the 10th century AD onwards [4]. Citrus fruits - among them the bitter orange - were introduced to Sicily in the 9th century with the Muslim conquest of Sicily, but the sweet orange was unknown until the late 15th century. It was carried to the Mediterranean area possibly by Italian traders after AD 1450 or by Portuguese navigators around AD 1500. Until that point, citrus fruits were valued by Europeans mainly for medicinal purposes, but the sweet orange was quickly adopted as a luscious fruit. Considered a luxury item, the wealthy grew oranges in private conservatories, called orangeries. By 1646, the sweet orange was well known throughout Europe [5].

Orange Cake One hundred years later and Margaretta Acworth recorded a delicious recipe for Orange Cake in her personal recipe book. The book itself may have been begun by her mother, Anne Ball, but Margaretta continually added to it, exchanging recipes with friends and relatives. Some of those that survive date from the 1720s or earlier suggesting they may well have been handed down to Anne Ball from her own mother. Regardless, this remarkable book records 70 years of practical cookery performed by affluent Georgian women.

Mrs Acworth cookery book includes a wide range of cakes which perhaps reflects the relatively new Georgian fashion for taking afternoon tea. Today such cakes typically have self-raising flour as the raising agent. But in 1745 when Margaretta married Abraham Acworth it would be another century before self-raising flour was invented [6]. Thus, during the 18th century, cooks made increasing use of eggs as raising agents in preference to the yeast of earlier times [7]. The result is a firmer but moist cake bursting with sweet orange flavour.

Bon appétit!



1. Paterson, I., (2003), A Dictionary of Colour: A Lexicon of the Language of Colour, London: Thorogood, p. 280.

2. The mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata), also known simply as the mandarin (or mandarine), is a small citrus tree fruit treated as a distinct species of orange.

3. Hodgson, R.W., (1967-1989), 'Chapter 4: Horticultural Varieties of Citrus'.

4. Trillo San José, C., (2003), 'Water and landscape in Granada', Universidad de Granada.

5. Morton, J., (1987), 'Orange, Citrus sinensis. In: Fruits of Warm Climates', New Crop Resource Online Program, Center for New Crops & Plant Products, Purdue University, pp. 134–1421.

6. Self-raising flour was invented by Bristol baker Henry Jones. He was granted a patent for self-raising flour in 1845, and by the end of 1846 its runaway success led to him being appointed purveyor of patent flour and biscuits by Royal Appointment to Queen Victoria.

7. Prochaska, A & Prochaska, F. (eds.), (1987), 'Margaretta Acworth’s Georgian Cookery Book', London: Pavilion Books, p. 91.